Grover Norquist, the right’s premier political organizer, once told me that the most significant difference between liberal journalists and conservative journalists is that the former are journalists first while the latter are conservatives first (if journalists at all). Right-winger Bill O’Reilly plays the role of a journalist on TV, radio and print. His grasp of the profession’s fundamental tenets, however, seems hardly more secure than that of an actor hired to play a journalist in a phony White House Medicare video.
Recently O’Reilly complained on television, radio and in his syndicated column about a December 2003 group interview conducted by about a dozen and a half writers and scholars with John Kerry in Al Franken’s apartment. Those present at the two-hour, on-the-record event–myself included–grilled Kerry about his record, his plans and what looked to be his failing campaign. Because few believed Kerry was still in the running–Slate‘s Mickey Kaus was holding a contest to name the excuse he would use to drop out of the race–the encounter generated little mainstream coverage. I posted a long description of it on my “Altercation” weblog (www.altercation.msnbc.com), including the “spirited exchange” between Kerry and me over his misguided vote to authorize the Iraq war, and William Rivers Pitt wrote about it on the Truthout.com website.
Months later, O’Reilly became exercised upon reading a short paragraph about the meeting in a New York Times Magazine profile of his nemesis, Franken, in which Time managing editor Jim Kelly was quoted observing, “By the third go-round, the answer [regarding Iraq] was getting shorter and more relevant.” In his column, O’Reilly complained, “The ‘third go-round’? That sounds like coaching to me, but I could be wrong. Maybe the Massachusetts senator simply wasn’t making himself clear…. Can you imagine if executives from the Fox News Channel, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times had gathered at Camp David for a little slap and tickle with President Bush? And nobody was told about it? And The New York Times found out about it? Can you say PAGE ONE BOLD FACE HEADLINE?”
Alas, the talk-show host is confused on several counts simultaneously. The meeting included no executives and was clearly no “slap and tickle” session. Here’s Pitt’s description: “Kerry’s decision to open himself to the slings and arrows of this group was bold and impressive. He…had his game face on. He needed it, because Eric Alterman lit into him immediately on the all-important issue of his vote for the Iraq War Resolution. The prosecution had begun.” (And O’Reilly cannot credibly plead ignorance on this point, because, at the request of a Fox producer, I forwarded him my MSNBC.com report on the meeting.)